CINCINNATI -- For most of the week, the special teams chatter revolving around the Cincinnati Bengals has had to do with how they will deal with the top return units in the league now that their starting punter has been lost to injury for the year.
The conversations have been good ones, but maybe it's time someone starts talking about the Bengals' own kick return team. After all, the unit does rank fifth entering Sunday's game against the Minnesota Vikings.
"We always talk about what the other guy or other team does in terms of defending a player, but they have to defend us, too," Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons said. "We have a lot of confidence in what we've done in the return game the past three to five weeks. We've made some explosive plays in virtually every game."
Brandon Tate, a fifth-year player in his third season with the Bengals, has been the one making the types of cuts and jukes that have led to big kick return gains and strong starting field position for the Bengals.
Since Week 10, the Bengals rank third in the NFL in starting field position that resulted from a kickoff. On average, they have 73.9 yards to travel after kickoffs in that span, meaning they are starting drives around their own 26. That compares favorably to their all-drive starting field position across that stretch of their own 31. Regardless whether their offense got the ball due to a punt, kickoff or turnover, the Bengals since Week 10 have begun their average drive at their own 31.
In the past two games, Tate has been particularly strong, giving the Bengals an average post-kickoff starting field position of their own 30. Only the Vikings have been better, starting such drives at their own 30.
"It's good to see Brandon get hot," Simmons said. "You want him to be hot at this time of the year because you want to put the feat in other teams, too."
Tate is averaging 26.4 yards per kickoff return this season. Against the Steelers last week, he was the only bright spot in an otherwise dark day for Cincinnati's special teams. He averaged 32.8 yards per kick return, routinely setting the Bengals up for strong starting field position. The problem, though, was that each of his four kick returns came after the Bengals were already down 21-0.
It appears teams are already receiving the message about Tate's recent explosive exploits. It could have been the wind, but Pittsburgh's first two kickoffs in the game were short. So much so that Cedric Peerman fielded both, even causing him to wave off Tate on one in a manner that forced officials to rule the ball down where he waved. They said that his signal, performed at the 9-yard line, was perceived as a call for a fair catch.
After a punt on the ensuing drive, the Steelers drove ahead of a 12-yard touchdown pass that put them up 14-0. A Bengals drive later, the Steelers took the 21-0 lead when Antonio Brown had a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown. The score came after Bengals punter Kevin Huber took a hard shot from Pittsburgh's Terence Garvin as he turned back to seal a hole Brown ultimately ended up sprinting through. The hit forced Huber to injured reserve.
Part of what has made Tate so solid of late has been his ability to commit to one juke or one cut and to see it through, head coach Marvin Lewis said. He's not playing indecisively.
"Brandon has done a nice job of committing himself to the one cut and go. Good things happen that way," Lewis said. "As a kick returner, [the play] is developed like an offensive play. We have to attack the point of attack. We have to block the point of attack and then the runner has to take the correct read and hit it and go. Brandon has done that pretty well. Later in the year, you get more kicks you can handle in those situations."